This paper is concerned with the frictionless unilateral contact problem (i.e., a Signorini problem with the elasticity operator). We consider a mixed finite element method in which the unknowns are the displacement field and the contact pressure. The particularity of the method is that it furnishes a normal displacement field and a contact pressure satisfying the sign conditions of the continuous problem. The a priori error analysis of the method is closely linked with the study of a specific positivity preserving operator of averaging type which differs from the one of Chen and Nochetto. We show that this method is convergent and satisfies the same a priori error estimates as the standard approach in which the approximated contact pressure satisfies only a weak sign condition. Finally we perform some computations to illustrate and compare the sign preserving method with the standard approach.